The e-mail to some faculty members at the College of William & Mary came out of the blue, reminding them to be careful about the language they use in class and, specifically, asking them not to use the word "retarded" in class.
Its appearance last week perplexed some professors and prompted one or two to tell the student newspaper that administrators were questioning their professionalism. Several experts on faculty speech said that the missive was unusual, but that rather than a threat to academic freedom, they saw a sincere effort to protect potentially vulnerable students.
"…[T]he word retarded has returned in slang usage to mean dumb or stupid, but this is not an appropriate way to use the word in class,” Kelly Joyce, the dean of undergraduate studies, wrote in her e-mail.
Joyce said via e-mail that “[r]epresentatives of our Student Assembly who are participating in a national campaign, 'Spread the Word to End the Word,' asked me to reach out to Arts and Sciences faculty in support of that effort. I agreed.”
One professor at the college, who asked not to be identified, said he was mystified by the e-mail. “There was no explanation in the e-mail,” he said. “I just wanted to know what the basis of this was. As far as I can tell, this is a response to a non-problem.” If there had been an incident (or incidents) related to the use of the word, he said, the faculty members involved could have been talked to directly, instead of a broadcast e-mail.
“Anytime language is dictated by the dean to faculty, it causes a little bit of hesitation,” he said.
Todd Mooradian, the faculty assembly president at the college and a professor at the Mason School of Business, said the e-mail definitely did not raise academic freedom issues.
“If we view an action like this … as an infringement on our freedom of speech or academic freedom, then we need more to do with our time and we need to take our freedoms more seriously -- they are not nearly that fragile,” he said in an e-mailed message.
In 2008, the Special Olympics started a campaign through a website  to combat the use of the word. Two years later, President Obama signed a law  removing the term “mentally retarded” from federal health, education and labor laws.
Experts said the dean’s e-mail seemed to encourage civility and understanding.
Robert M. O’Neil, professor of law emeritus at the University of Virginia and an authority on First Amendment issues, said an e-mail like the one sent out at the college couldn’t possibly hurt.
“Faculty do set the standard for students, and their use of potentially disparaging language could be harmful,” O’Neil said. “I found the dean’s statement a strong and appealing statement designed not to inhibit, rather to encourage, civility and understanding.”
Often, faculty members use self-imposed restraints to avoid being put in an awkward position. “This is very different from a speech code, that bans the use of some words. Now, that is inappropriate,” he said.
Both O’Neil and Robert Shibley, senior vice president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, were unable to provide examples of similar communication to faculty members at other colleges or universities.
These sort of reminders are more frequently sent to students, Shibley said. “It is understandable if some professors feel that they do not need to be told what to do,” Shibley said. “But this seems like a sincere effort.”
Another legal expert, Neil Hamilton, who directs the Thomas Holloran Center for ethical leadership in the professions at the University of St. Thomas, in Minneapolis, said any negative reaction was an unintended consequence of the disability service office just doing its work.
“The diversity office, following what it is recommending to faculty, can listen to the feedback it is getting from faculty and adjust its efforts to minimize a negative reaction,” he said.